5 surprising signs of fatty liver disease you can’t ignore
By Dr. Mary James, ND
Once upon a time, liver disease was a rare occurrence, mostly affecting alcoholics.
But not anymore.
Recently, fatty liver disease has become the most widespread chronic liver disease
in the United States. If that isn’t shocking enough, consider that fatty liver affects
80 to 100 million people. What’s more, some studies suggest that post-menopausal
women are more likely to get it than men. And doctors often miss the early signs
Wondering if your liver is at risk? Fortunately, there are some simple signals that
you should check out whenever they appear. The good news is that it’s possible to
stop fatty liver in its tracks — and even reverse it completely — if you diagnose
it soon enough.
What is fatty liver disease?
Fatty liver occurs when too much fat gets stored in the liver and it can’t function
properly. This extra fat also increases inflammation. This is so critical to your
health because your liver is a powerhouse organ. It’s responsible for a host of
functions in your body, such as controlling your immune system and the clotting
of your blood, producing bile and glycogen, detoxifying medications and
filtering toxins out of your body. That’s why it’s so important for you
to take the best possible care of your liver.
Your liver also plays a key role in controlling the supply of energy in your body.
The sugar (glucose) in your blood is carried into cells by insulin, to be burned
for energy. But when glucose can’t easily enter the cells (as in
insulin resistance) or when you simply eat more than you need, that extra
energy gets turned into fat in the form of triglycerides, which get stored in the
cells of your liver.
The same process occurs in people who drink too much alcohol. What starts out as
too much fat deposited in the liver can progress to inflammation, liver cell injury,
and eventually scarring. Various health risks multiply through the stages of fatty
- Simple Steatosis: increased total liver fat content (generally
above 5-10 percent)
- Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis (NASH): excessive fat content in the
liver, inflammation and some scarring
- Cirrhosis: pervasive scar tissue that significantly impairs liver
The underlying causes of fatty liver are still being studied and debated. But if
you catch the early warning signs, the remedies are well-known.
Surprising signs of fatty liver disease
Especially in its early stages, symptoms of fatty liver can be either non-existent
or vague, such as fatigue, fuzzy thinking, mild abdominal discomfort or swelling,
and possible irritable bowel syndrome symptoms.
But there are a few well-recognized indicators of possible fatty liver. If any of
the following are true for you, it may be time to take steps to protect your liver:
1. Extra weight (being overweight or obese)
2. High (fasting) blood triglycerides
3. High or high-normal (fasting) blood glucose
4. Pre-diabetes (metabolic syndrome)
5. Type 2 diabetes
What do all of these conditions have in common?
Nutrition and lifestyle.
Research shows that, above all, obesity is a clear risk factor. Around 70 percent
of obese people have fatty liver disease, while only 10 to 15 percent of people
with a normal weight have it. But obesity isn’t the only factor.
Fatty liver can also affect women without extra weight
Importantly, though, fatty liver disease also develops in many lean individuals.
This makes it easy to miss. If you’re normal weight but you don’t exercise much,
and your belly contains more fat than you’d like, you are at risk, especially if
your triglycerides are high and your HDL-cholesterol is low. Although 20-30 percent
of Americans are thought to have fatty liver, this number rises to 80-90 percent
among people with type 2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome (prediabetes).
Menopause and fatty liver
Menopause can also increase your risk of developing fatty liver, since estrogen
naturally protects the liver and supports insulin sensitivity. An expanding waist,
weight gain and lower energy that causes you to move less all increase the chances
of depositing more fat in your liver. Not surprisingly, more postmenopausal women
than premenopausal women have been found to have fatty liver disease.
Tips to support your liver
Taking steps in your daily life to eat well and maintain a healthy weight can make
all the difference. Simply losing weight (as little as 3-5%) can help to reduce
fat, inflammation and scarring in your liver. Aerobic exercise (even moderate intensity)
improves the health of your liver, even if it doesn’t lead to weight loss. Exercise
and increasing your muscle mass also both help your body to use glucose more effectively.
Here are some tips to support your liver (and your whole body) today:
- Replace trans fats and animal fats with olive, flaxseed and avocado oils.
- Choose tofu, fish (preferably wild-caught) or lean fresh meat (organic) instead
of fatty or processed meats.
- Eat plenty of vegetables, fruit, and high-fiber foods such as beans, legumes and
- Limit drinks that are high on the glycemic index (including juice, sport drinks,
soda and alcohol). Drink plenty of water instead.
- Swap out white rice, white bread and pasta for brown rice, quinoa or steamed greens.
Swap out white potatoes for sweet potatoes.
fatty acids (e.g., in fish oils) help reduce the abnormalities associated with
fatty liver disease, according to several clinical studies.
- Exercise daily, even if it’s just a brisk walk around your neighborhood.
- Do a
cleanse at least twice per year. Environmental toxins place significant stress
on the liver.